NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB) - One of the people who will watch Nik Wallenda walk the tightrope this summer wishes he too could challenge the falls - even though it wouldn't be his first attempt!
Just as millions of tourists are drawn to thundering Niagara Falls each year, 65-year-old Canadian Peter Debernardi has been drawn to the falls his whole life. Here, he says a thunder god rules.
"There is so much power, I swear, there is an influence here. By Hanu, there is," he said.
Debernardi dresses like a showman because he is one. He gave the world a show on September 27, 1989 when he and a partner strapped into a specially made barrel cushioned with inner tubes and a crew pushed it into the rapids just above the Horseshoe Falls.
Debernardi says the ride in the rapids was rough, surprisingly rough, for him and his partner.
"He said, 'Holy God, we didn't even go over yet!' It's true. To get there was a hell of a ride," recalled Debernardi.
But then they met the brink.
"As far as the fall, what I thought it'd be like, an elevator, like a free fall. It's like lying in bed. It's a free fall, very calm for 3.5 [seconds], then bang! Oh I'll never forget that bang."
>> Debernardi and his partner weren't the only ones to go over the falls in a barrel around that time. You can see more daredevils in our special section on WIVB.com dedicated to Nik Wallenda and his upcoming walk
That bang meant the two-man barrel was clanging against rocks at the base of the falls - over and over again - but Debernardi and Jeff Petkovich had survived. What followed was a climb to safety, a ticket for stunting, and the beginning of a 23-year quest to do it again!
Debernardi explained, "Because I want to do it again. The first time was a practice run. Really."
Spurred by the flurry over Nik Wallenda's upcoming wirewalk across the falls, Debernardi has submitted a formal request with the Niagara Parks Commission to ride a new, lighter weight high-tech barrel over the falls as a means of boosting tourism.
"It's a spectacular thing to draw the people. And that happens to be the thing right now to draw people here, to keep them here overnight, and you have to go to extreme sports. I offered them - any money to be made here, you can have it. I'm not interested in money. Have it," he argued.
Debernardi says he's been given a flat "no." The rules now say no daredevils at the falls after Wallenda for another 20 years.
He's hoping to change that, because he says Niagara Falls needs the business boost on both sides of the border. In the meantime, he is cheering on Nik Wallenda and has this advice:
"Tune into the water. Respect the power, respect its power. Go for it and do it. We're all counting on you. You have to. If anything happened, that's really going to back things up. So Wallenda, go for it. Geez. We wish you the best. [Fist pump]."
Debernardi believes he will meet with Wallenda before his wirewalk.
In the meantime, he has rallied the support of Canadian businesspeople who would like to see more activities to draw visitors to the falls - and he wants to see a plaque erected to commemorate the Niagara daredevils dating back to 1901 he believes have earned a spot in history.
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